In Essays & Poems, Faculty Voices

Showing Up for Life: The Artist-Intellectual

by Peter M. Rojcewicz, PhD
Pacifica Graduate Institute Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs

The core requirement for private and professional success is “showing up.” To prosper in life requires more than training, hands-on experience, competency badges, or academic credentials. We all know what it’s like to simply “dial it in,” “go through the motions,” or “sleep walk” through the day. More than possessing the necessary chops, making one’s way in life requires something less concrete, less technical, and more essential.

Showing up in any real sense presupposes we exhibit energetic and mental presence in each moment. Showing up appears both profoundly simple and all encompassing – entailing social engagement and empathy, as well as the self-affirmation of interconnectivity that makes learning an essential human activity beyond mere self-reflection and narcissism. Admittedly, showing up is difficult; not showing up is a travesty, a waste of talent and possibility.

In some real sense, not showing up as a citizen means going missing. Divorced from civic duties, we’re neither recognized nor cared about. Missing-in-action, we forsake community in the double sense of its membership and ownership. In the former sense, we are outsiders or strangers; we don’t belong. By the latter, we avoid accountability that comes with co-creating a way and place to live. As such, we’re invisible and can neither be counted on nor trusted. We wear cloaks of suspicion.

How should we show up in our lives relative to present challenges – uncertainty, chaos, change, and indeterminacy, all of which seem to make sense only within the logic of chaos theory? We face thorny issues, solutions to which cannot be found in books or databases or resolved by current knowledge. Technical challenges have given way to “adaptive challenges,” the answers to which emerge by shifting our perception, judgment, beliefs, or priorities (Heifetz). Adaptive challenges raise the question – “Who do we need to be– for ourselves, for others, for the earth?”

Each of us carries an existential obligation to make apparent our “being” as we speak, listen, and act. Manifesting our essential being means showing up in novel ways at deep purpose in all that we do. It means seeing as an artist, listening as a mediator, thinking as an intellectual, and extending bonds of affection as a lover. The artist seeks the deep unseen; the mediator seeks peace and concord; the intellectual seeks truths and meanings; the lover seeks the beloved. The outcomes of those generative obligations are permutations of self – personal, aesthetic, and social.

One such possible formulation of self is that of the intellectual (Sartre). What might it mean to show up today as an intellectual? Do intellectuals pursue knowledge for its own sake or engage in pure research? Are they elites who speak in a specialized jargon impenetrable to the popular ear? Some look down on intellectual learning, prizing material acquisitions, professional accomplishments, or overwhelming power. Intellectual learning, on the other hand, is an inner achievement and transformation of being. Truly learned people who live lives of the mind wed interiority and exteriority, form and substance, right views and right practice. They stand on two feet – disciplined knowledge of reality and reflexive self-awareness. The goal of the intellectual is not to acquire or achieve but to release learning into the world.

There are diverse intellectual models after which to fashion a life of inquiry, self-reflection, and deep purpose, forming an existential intimacy of learning. One possible permutation of the self to be made evident by intentional living is that of the Artist-Intellectual. What exactly does it mean to be an intellectual who is an artist? How might Artist-Intellectuals be distinguished say, from the intellectual as historian or technician?

The intellectual as historian is a collector of ideas. Historians love the “objects” of their study – chronicles, travel logs, letters, and various other documents needed to tell a story of the directly unknowable past that meets the present needs of an academic community of historians. Supplementing their use of literary documents, some historians move to examine “silent” artifacts as material manifestations of culture, such as vernacular architecture, artifacts of wood and stone, to substantiate their narratives (Glassie). Literary documents and material artifacts together provide evidence of the personality and culture of people of the past. We need intellectuals as historians, of course, but object-love may lead to an insular, self-satisfied retreat from the world.

The intellectual as technician offers a valuable but different model of showing up in our world of complex change, racial and viral pandemics, nationalism, and climate change. Our STEM dominated universities enflame human desires for certainty, predictability, and mechanical control of nature through scientific materialism, technology, and calculative reason. Technicians as specialists in practical knowledge love their methods of study – efficient, cool, theoretical, and pure. Research methods, however, can be fickle, faithful only in a theoretical, unchanging setting. Method-love is no advance over object-love, and so another move is needed – the Artist-Intellectual.

An intellectual as historian knows what; the technician knows how; in addition to those moves, Artist-Intellectuals know why. On this point Cicero noted, “we must see not only what each one says, but also what he thinks, and also why he thinks it.” As with Eratosthenes, Da Vinci, Thoreau, Sartre, C.S. Lewis, Czeslaw Milosz, Simone de Beauvoir, Voltaire, Ayn Rand, Camus, Duchamp, W.E.B. DuBois, and C.G. Jung, Artist-Intellectuals may be artists in the generally understood sense of one who writes, paints, dances, sculpts, etc. However, the necessary and sufficient trait of distinction is an awareness of their goals of study in relationship to what and how they work. Their commitment to deep purpose is a matter of ethics, values, alliances, and responsible actions. It is a matter of thoughtfulness, understood not as a pursuit of irrefutable logic but as a commitment to avoid self-deception.

Artist-Intellectuals exemplify an ideal permutation of self in which they set and adroitly arrange and rearrange the iterative relationships among study objects, methods, and goals. They select their objects clearly, strategically including in the scope of their research neither too much nor too little. For, if the object of study changes, their method may leave them bereft of explanations. Context may require them to creatively apply alternate methods of research to objects of study in order to realize goals. This is not to say that one can control the world or always find answers to problems. This is to say, however, that Artist-Intellectuals move fearlessly toward unknowns as opportunities to un-learn what has led us into current dilemmas, displaying radical availability and responsiveness to what emerges from deep within a learning environment.

The transdisciplinary nature of problems we currently face call for both a knowledge of analytical reason plus noetic (James) inter-sensory and tacit knowing that plumb the depths of issues not graspable by discursive intellect alone. The noetic literacy of Artist-Intellectuals allow for adaptive moves in social and psychological contexts, bypassing the reductionist, routinized, or uninspired mind that is never a rigorous mind, so much as a rigor-mortis of the mind (Rojcewicz). Nietzsche insisted, “One thing is needed: to give style to one’s character – a great and rare art!… (It is to) see all the strengths and weaknesses of one’s own nature in an artistic plan until everything appears as art and reason and even weaknesses delight the eye.”

Showing up for life as Artist-Intellectuals is a move beyond resilience in the face of difficulty to response-ableness, the capacity to discern what is positive and possible in any challenge. Our artistic expressions and intellectual achievements mean little unless we can derive from them a guiding perspective for life, moral and intellectual authority, and demonstrate to others that we are made better by the practice of our art and the extent to which we value learning in all we do.

Artist-Intellectuals are learners capable of thinking in the fullest sense at the borders of objective and subjective knowledge. They are true transdisciplinarians who eschew artificial divisions among academic subjects. Still, solutions to intractable problems will not result from our best individual efforts alone, but from relational exchanges among people capable of making explicit the deep learning yet to be spoken, heard, documented, and artfully brought forth as seedlings of health-generating change. Eschewing both aestheticism and intellectualism for their own sakes as insufficient ends in themselves, Artist-Intellectuals must necessarily show up as generative, engaged citizens, learning with, from, and on behalf of others and the earth we share.

Peter M. Rojcewicz, PhD
Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs
Pacifica Graduate Institute


Glassie, Henry. Folk Housing in Middle Virginia, A Structural Analysis of Historic Artifacts. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press. 1975.

Heifetz, Ronald et al. The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World. Boston: Harvard Business Press. 2009.

James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience, A Study of Human Nature. 1902. New York: Collier Books. 1961.

Nietzsche, Frederich. The Gay Science. 1882. Transl. Walter Kaufman, New York: Vintage 1974.

Rojcewicz, Peter M. “Imagination and Poetic knowing in Higher Education: Toward A Noetic Education.” In Prospero, A Journal of New Thinking in Philosophy for Education. 2000.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. “A Plea for Intellectuals.” In Between Marxism and Existentialism. 1972. New York: Pantheon Books, 1974.

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